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Brütal Legend Fails To Satisfy (Despite Jack Black)

Posted on 30th November 2009. No Comment

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Guy Corbett reviews Tim Schaffer’s latest offering and is fairly nonplussed…

“The man in question, Tim Schaffer, has a list of frankly staggering games to his name. “

As titles for games go, Brütal Legend’s is wholly appropriate.  Those familiar with its content will know much of it is a loving tribute to all things even remotely connected to heavy metal music.  Unfortunately some will be put off by that, as it doesn’t suggest the world’s friendliest game which is a shame because not only does Brütal Legend keep it’s tongue lodged firmly in its cheek but it was created by the same man behind PC games Monkey Island and Grim Fandango; games that are about as far from the senseless violence of modern action games at it is possible to get. 

The man in question, Tim Schaffer, has a list of frankly staggering games to his name.  The first two titles of the Monkey Island series regularly top lists of the greatest games of all time and his previous effort, Psychonaughts, received almost embarrassing levels of critical praise.   Add to that the amount of pre-release hype Brütal Legend received, its protracted battle to get published, the almost unheard of range of vocal talents (including celebrities Jack Black and Tim Curry) and you are left with a game that everyone wanted to be amazed by.  Of course it’s been on the shelves for over a month now, the jury’s been out, come back and moved on in an attempt to try and forget that Brütal Legend doesn’t quite live up to expectations.   Having finished the game, I arrived at a similar conclusion, though apparently for different reasons to most.

Black’s character, Eddie Riggs, is an underappreciated roadie transported to a fantasy world where he has to use the skills developed building sets and organizing bands to, er, build fortifications and organize an army.  His task is to lead the humans in a rebellion against their demonic overlords. The plot would be laughable if you were to take it seriously, but it’s the landscapes that really does the trick with the developers having done a fantastic job of crafting brilliantly realised environments, and making metal album cover illustrators look like amateur cartoonists. 

  Many of the early missions take the form of classic action-adventure outings consisting largely of hack and slash combat that feels fluid

Gameplay is a mishmash of types that basically boils down to the following premise; the various factions that could aidbrutal-legend your cause are scattered, it is your task to explore the world and convince them to join your forces in order for you to be able to command them in your army.  The first part, exploring the world, is a joy.  As already mentioned it is heavily detailed and genuinely impressive with your main mode of transport, a customisable hot rot, only adding to the fun.  Many of the early missions take the form of classic action-adventure outings consisting largely of hack and slash combat that feels fluid and expertly treads the ground between easy enough to be fun and hard enough to remain engaging.  The occasional change in pace, often in the form of some kind of escort mission, initially at least, keeps things moving along briskly. 

It is the ‘commanding your army’ part that many people have criticised.  Every now and then, the game drops into a command and conquer-esque RTS battle.  Suddenly all the heavy metal analogies don’t make so much sense and an entirely different tone takes over.  These are arguably the focus of the game and, whilst they are the weakest of the gameplay on offer, I still found them genuinely enjoyable.  It is true that this aspect does seem to come from nowhere and feels forced to fit in with everything else going on. 

However once you have accepted that this is the route the game is going to take, these battles provide an interesting new take on the RTS genre.  If you’re looking for the depth and complexity of something like Red Alert, you will undoubtedly be disappointed as that’s not what Brütal Legend is aiming for.  Instead, throughout these battles, Eddie can sprout wings to fly above the battle field and direct his army, before swooping back in to join the fray.  It’s a fun dynamic of a type that you just don’t see in many other games.  The main problem with these battles is fact that there is no actual need to swap between flying and walking.  A veteran RTS player will want to play them entirely from the air where it becomes painfully slow and simplistic.  Similarly, play it entirely on foot and combat jolts from uncontrollably hectic to dull, as the armies travel from A to B.  The game needed to provide a better reason to swap between these two play styles beyond ‘it’s more fun that way!’ as gamers are inherently lazy.

 For me though the biggest problem with the game is that it is constantly teasing you with what it could have been.

So, while the gameplay has a bit of a weak link, it’s solid overall and it was other aspects which I felt let Brütal Legend down.  The voice acting is mostly impressive, with Jack Black, Tim Curry and (surprisingly) Ozzy Osborne all giving outstanding performances.  The others get their jobs done but Lemmy Kilmister lets the side down with his frankly unintelligible mutterings.  However one major gripe is the way the voices are used.  Even Ozzy’s performance couldn’t stand up to this, with the game continuously spouting preset phrases, that were funny the first time, over and over until it had me reaching for the mute button when I knew I was going to have to hear him.

For me though the biggest problem with the game is that it is constantly teasing you with what it could have been.  It’s set in an open world that you are free to explore, but that is so much smaller than you expect.  There’s also little to do in this world besides pursuing the main story and finding power ups.  You have a map with optional side questions marked out bringing games like Fall Out 3 or Grand Theft Auto to mind.  Try and actually spend time on these though and you’ll find they aren’t really side quests at all, just a collection of dull, shamefully repeated mini games, which should have been consigned to some extra’s menu, if included at all. 

The worst offence of this kind is the ending, which comes very abruptly and leaves some of the most interesting aspects of the story completely floundering.

This feeling of missed opportunity extends to the script and story.  Though Tim Shaffer’s trademark humour is on show throughout, the game never quite delivers on its promises.  The wings Eddie gets are constantly hinted at being part of something bigger that is going have consequences.  All we actually get is a revelation as to where they came from, which is not only predictable but largely irrelevant.  There are repeated hints that more is going on than you are party to.  Cut scenes often start with Eddie explaining something to the other characters.  It’s clearly exposition but it doesn’t make sense coming from the one character who you’ve been in control of for the whole game.  If he knows something, we should have been there when he discovered it.  The worst offence of this kind is the ending, which comes very abruptly and leaves some of the most interesting aspects of the story completely floundering.  It makes you feel like the developers have made a fantastic epic world in their heads but are only willing to share about half of it with anyone else.

All of these criticisms may seem unfair because rather than pointing the flaws of what is present in the game, I’m just pointing out what’s missing.  In some sense that is about as useful as criticising a bicycle for not having an engine, but when a game is over as quickly as Brütal Legend is (8 – 10 hours), it’s harder to dismiss such obvious omissions. I haven’t mentioned the multiplayer modes but frankly completing this game leaves you wanting more of the story and characters, not the gameplay, as competent as it may be. The fact remains though that what is on offer is a solid and unique experience that is worth the asking price, or at least will be in a month’s time.  Perhaps someone who didn’t have such high expectations of a Tim Schaffer game would enjoy it more, but for me it feels not only like it could have, but should have been so much more.  

Guy Corbett

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